Have you seen Star Trek: First Contact? It’s the one where everyone’s favourite space-faring bald badass Jean-Luc Picard is fighting against the cybernetic Borg, who invade the Enterprise, and begin to assimilate its crew and modify the ship, planning to use it to attack and conquer Earth. Well that’s pretty much exactly what happened to me yesterday inside the UN climate talks conference centre when I came up against the forces of big agribusiness.
I was sitting in a corporate side event that had been put on by the Global Alliance For Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA) which describes itself as “a voluntary alliance of partners, dedicated to addressing the challenges facing food security and agriculture under a changing climate.” The panel discussion introduced a series of case studies from around the world - Ireland, Tanzania and Costa Rica, all of them on projects designed to reduce emissions and promote farmers interests, with the overall frame of the discussion was about GACSA could be used to scale-up such projects. All of which, to the casual observer sounds great, so why was I having to draw upon the courage of my inner-Picard to pop a question that was a criticism of almost everything that people had been talking about.
The thing is, there’s a huge array of NGOs and farmers’ organisations who are really suspicious and critical of Climate Smart Agriculture. Shortly after the creation of GACSA was announced at the United Nations secretary general’s climate summit in New York in 2014, a coalition of over 100 different organisations published a letter that said, “climate-smart” agriculture provides a dangerous platform for corporations to implement the very activities we oppose. By endorsing the activities of the planet’s worst climate offenders in agribusiness and industrial agriculture, the Alliance will undermine the very objectives that it claims to aim for”.
NGOs are critical because there’s very little criteria to define what the term means, that some of the schemes being proposed are linked to the very discredited notion of carbon trading, and that the platform seems to be more about creating a new space to promote big agribusiness and industrial agriculture. Indeed, the company who was hosting the panel at the COP in Paris was Yara, a Norwegian company that is one of the global leaders in producing nitrogen fertilisers using a particularly energy intensive process.
Earlier in the day we’d revealed new research (that the Guardian had featured) estimating that Yara’s unreported Scope 3 emissions (the emissions arising from the upstream and downstream supply chains) were two and half times greater than Norway itself. So the executive from Yara who was chairing the meeting, was able to firmly frame this massively polluting industrial agriculture giant as part of the solution to climate change at COP 21. They were able to express right from the beginning that it was a shame that agriculture wasn’t being discussed at the climate talks, evoked the sense that they were the climate heroes in redressing that lack. The framing of the GACSA event was all about drawing attention to the various other projects practicing climate smart agriculture in other parts of the world, but of course not mentioning the fact that Yara was responsible for what we estimate to be the entire emissions of several nation states put together.
All of which was why I felt compelled to articulate as a question in the midst of this agribiz love-in. I asked why there was such a huge disconnect between the glowing success stories we had been presented and the fact that hundreds of NGOs, including bigger ones like Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and Action Aid had been so critical of GACSA, and if it was indeed just a means of greenwashing deeply unsustainably industrial agriculture like the new research on Yara that had been released. I’m not a naturally confrontational chap, and I had to push myself to say what I thought was an important intervention in that space, so I blurted it out and waited for the dirty looks and raised voices for raining on their climate smart parade.
And that’s when the Borging began.
They were falling over themselves to welcome the question. It was a question that “reinforces the need to have dialogue”. The chair looked me sincerely and frankly in the eye and told me it was an “important question that needed to be raised”. They were grateful I had brought the perspective to the space. This was all basically a misunderstanding. There’s a spectrum of values, and NGOs are rigidly adhering to their agricultural values. All this suspicion is a huge missed opportunity for NGOs to agree on what the metrics are - it’s real pity that civil society is not being more active, as it’s so sad that they are not being part of these solutions.
And that’s how they robbed me of my power, by refusing to confront me or have any real opposition to what I was saying, but instead trying to assiduously assert themselves as being on the same side really, and so why don’t I just get with the programme and assimilate myself into their corporate power base which is where the real solutions to climate change are. "We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile."
It was really instructive as to the purpose and power of an institution like GACSA - it reinforced how effective the platform is as means of absorbing and assimilating criticism. This happens at the micro level, like the side event I was at with just a handful of people, and on the bigger stage, where corporate entities engage in the battle of the story and deflect criticism by constructing their own narratives by in which they are firmly ensconced as the heroic protagonist, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
There are a wealth of low carbon agricultural solutions out there, but they involve undermining the big centralised powerbase and influence possessed by the handful of corporate behemoths that control most of global food production, and that’s why you won’t be hearing about them via GACSA. Instead of allowing agribusiness to determine the parameters of the response we need much more support for food sovereignty and agroecology. While less lucrative than the industrial, chemical-intensive methods used by the agribusiness industry, agroecology has been shown to increase crop yields by up to 73% without the environmental costs of traditional intensive agriculture. Promoting food sovereignty, which involves placing control of food systems within local communities, would also serve to displace the influence of big agribusiness with its enormous carbon footprints.
Corporations have become increasingly skilled in adopting these sorts of tactics, evolving from a position of confrontation to co-optation. As far back as 2000 groups like Corporate Europe Observatory had documented how fossil fuel companies switched tactics like this with great effect and enormous harm in the context of the climate talks, and now it feels like with increasing focus on the enormous climate impact that big agribusiness companies, they are starting to do the same.